Saudi Crown Prince Targets Senior Royals in Sweeping Crackdown
Analyst: He acted to consolidate his power and make sure he becomes king
Saudi authorities have released three senior princes and some 20 officials who were detained and interrogated over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reports. But the arrests have reinforced rumors of tensions within the royal family.
Those arrested included Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, a nephew of King Salman bin Abdulaziz. He was crown prince from April 2015 until June 2017, when he was replaced by the current strongman, Salman’s son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, widely known as MbS.
They also included Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a younger brother of Salman.
Ahmed was seen as a possible heir to the monarch until MbS’s rise three years ago, and has not been happy with the way his nephew has been tightening his grip on power. In fact, he has never given the crown prince his backing.
The young and powerful MbS is demanding that top princes pledge bayia, or allegiance, sources in Riyadh tell The Media Line. His latest moves are a sign that he is continuing to consolidate his grip on power, having already ordered security forces to imprison hundreds of prominent clerics and activists.
He is viewed as the de facto ruler, controlling all the major levers of government, from defense to the economy. The 34-year-old crown prince is widely thought to be stamping out all traces of dissent ahead of a formal transfer of power from his father, who is 84.
Dr. Ali Bakeer, a Middle East analyst, told The Media Line that “the nature of the Saudi government and the absence of transparency in such matters make it hard for observers to accurately determine what is really happening and why.”
The two senior princes who were arrested had been seen at one point or another as the most serious threats to MbS’s road to the throne, he said.
The king is reportedly suffering from frail health and dementia. In an effort by the government to deflect this allegation, Salman appeared on state TV on Sunday.
Bakeer said the king’s favorite son wanted to make sure his path to becoming king was clear and that there was no opposition.
“Depending on King Salman’s condition right now, one can say that these arrests came as a preemptive action by MbS to cut off the possibility of potentially powerful rivals to challenge his right to the throne,” he explained. “There are two main wild cards: The first is the state of King Salman’s health, and the second has to do with the worsening economic situation in the kingdom caused by the fall in the price of oil.”
Dr. Tarek Cherkaoui, a manager at the TRT World Research Centre, concurs.
“This latest wave of arrests is not a surprise per se. This is in line with Mohammad bin Salman’s modus operandi from the very beginning. He acted to consolidate his power to make sure he becomes king,” Cherkaoui told The Media Line.
In just three years, MbS has silenced nearly all voices of dissent at home, with critics jailed and even killed.
Hasan Awwad, a Middle East expert at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, told The Media Line that the arrests were highly significant.
“We are talking about two of the most senior members of the Saudi royal family,” he said, adding that they still commanded respect and loyal followers within the family and military.
“The two have not been seen as supporters of the crown prince or of the direction he’s been taking the country in both domestic [affairs] and foreign policy. MbS was able to intimidate many, but not these princes, and that didn’t sit well with him. He is insecure in his ability to succeed his father as long as these two powerful men are still relatively free,” Awwad said.
Cherkaoui says that since MbS became crown prince, he has launched a number of major, high-profile social and economic reforms. But his ambitious projects, including the Saudi Vision 2030 program, aimed at weaning the kingdom away from its dependence on income from oil, have not been smooth sailing.
He is the one behind the five-year war in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition there has been accused of killing thousands of civilians in air strikes.
Cherkaoui said MbS’s failures were hurting the image of Saudi Arabia as a regional power.
“MbS has been playing brinkmanship games domestically, regionally and internationally. He wanted to be perceived internally and internationally as a ‘strong man’ that no one should mess with. However, MbS could not walk the walk,” he said.
“His failure on many fronts… conveys the impression that he is a dangerous and erratic man. This immensely undermined Saudi Arabia’s ‘soft power’ in the Muslim world and beyond,” Cherkaoui noted.
“This latest wave of arrests only reinforces the impression that MbS is a train wreck and that his legitimacy within his own family is uncertain,” he added.
Bakeer says the latest round of arrests comes at a sensitive time for the monarchy, as it faces a major drop in oil revenues due to the lack of demand created by coronavirus.
“This means that MbS is not quite comfortable in his position yet,” he said.
“Despite all his power, the crown prince probably feels he is standing in quicksand and that he needs to secure his position by eliminating all possible rivals or challengers,” he went on. “It also gives an idea of the challenges the country is currently facing, with the fall in oil prices and the absence of concrete achievements on the political or economic level.”
Bakeer adds that the Trump Administration’s absolute and unconditional support for MbS makes it difficult to expect change. Yet there is a catch.
“MbN [Mohammad bin Nayef] is very powerful and had deep-rooted connections both inside the kingdom and outside it, especially with the CIA,” he explained.
“There had been talk that the agency lost a very valuable and trustable partner in Saudi Arabia [when Mohammad bin Nayef was replaced as crown prince], and that’s why MbS might think that MbN could still constitute a threat to his position, especially with the reportedly increasing dissatisfaction within the royal family with MbS’s policies in the domestic, regional and international arenas,” he said.
Regarding Prince Ahmed, MbS probably thinks he is not loyal enough.
“Prince Ahmad didn’t seem to be supporting what King Salman and MbS have been doing in the last few years, not to mention that as a brother [of the monarch], he might still constitute a threat, even if he is not so close to the king personally,” Bakeer said.
Cherkaoui stated MbS had failed to gain total control over the House of Saud and the kingdom, and that this was damaging Saudi Arabia’s stability.
“What this means in the long run is that MbS has been eroding all the layers of his power base since 2015,” he explained.
“He first undermined the religious establishment, which historically has been instrumental in securing the legitimacy of the monarchy. Then, in 2019, he moved against several tribes [e.g. the Ghamed, Mutair, Otaiba, Shammar and ‘Anazah tribes] that were loyal to the royal family and played a pivotal role within the security apparatus,” he said.
The sweeping crackdown is nothing new to Saudis.
Back in November 2017, MbS ordered the arrest of dozens of senior members of the royal family, as well as many billionaire businessmen. They were detained at the luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel in the capital Riyadh.
At the time, the Saudi government described this as an anti-corruption campaign. The arrests attracted much criticism from Western governments and rights groups.
A year later, MbS’s image took another hit after the horrific killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi had criticized MbS.
With oil prices taking a nosedive and the additional loss of revenue caused by the suspension of the year-round Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca due to coronavirus, Cherkaoui says the kingdom is facing one of its toughest years in recent memory.
“MbS seems to be his own worst enemy. He exhausted the Saudi economy. When he came to power, the state’s debts were less than 50 billion riyals [about $13.3 billion]; they are now more than 500 billion riyals. He spent half of the state’s 3 trillion riyals in foreign exchange reserves on his foreign adventures and the questionable Vision 2030 program. The [Riyadh] stock market is in a disastrous state, and with the current oil-price war with Russia, the Saudi economy is going to suffer even more,” he explained.
“Furthermore, MbS’s tinkering with the Al Saud power base, namely the religious clerics, the loyalist tribes and the royal family itself, is a recipe for turmoil and disaster,” he continued.
“Even if, hypothetically speaking, MbS thwarted a failed attempt to seize power from him,” Cherkaoui said, “such an achievement would be only a temporary fix to the problem until the next crisis.”